If you scratch an environmental historian you’ll find a nature lover under the surface. Many of the ones I know—myself included—have an origins story that roots our occupational choice in an early appreciation for nature. I recognize that I am using “nature” here as an entirely unproblematic concept—something which few environmental historians would accept as we recognize nature as an historically flexible set of ideas. Yet even as I “problematize” nature in my work, I draw unproblematically on it as a deep source of pleasure and solace.
This struck me forcefully after returning from a canoe trip to Algonquin Park this past week. I woke the first morning back in Ottawa with a Zen smile hovering above the placid pool of my brain. Five years of not paddling and not portaging made the trip a challenge: I was clearly out of shape from doctoral study. After cresting a long slope on a long portage I dropped to the ground to rest; my heart was pounding so hard I was sure it was going to leap out of my chest.
Five minutes—or was it 15?—of blessed peace in the spring sun among blossoming trout lilies followed. That pause, and its companion moments during the trip contemplating clouds, butterflies, trees, birds, rocks, reptiles, water, mammals, moss, and fish, infused me with joy. Despite an aching back and sore hips, and Algonquin Park’s inescapable history, I was thankful. I recognized my privilege even as my historical consciousness lapsed into momentary silence.
There have been moments during these years of Masters and PhD study that the acids of inquiry have corroded my love of nature. But this has happened before and academic study wasn’t the cause: one summer as a commercial fisherman turned me away from the pleasures of sport-fishing for several seasons. Catching fish for a living made the recreational form seem trivial. And the waste and racism I witnessed were demoralizing.
But I returned to fishing and with a different perspective that has since directed my work. Being in nature and querying it are not mutually exclusive: we must in any case learn to live with our contradictions. Besides there is no pleasure like idleness—which Izaak Walton pleased to call ‘contemplation’—for it is the very soul of angling and the condition for thinking.